For Kids With Autism, Caring Peers Trump Bullies

by Molly Matava on 04/23/2012

Has your child been the victim of a school bully? It’s a topic garnering tons of news coverage these days, and a great concern for every parent. This week the motion picture Bully, opens in theaters, and it’s already opening up a nationwide conversation.

If bullying is destructive for kids who are typically developing, imagine the impact it can have on children with special needs. Results of a survey conducted by the Interactive Autism Network at Kennedy Krieger Institute show that a staggering 63 percent of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have experienced bullying at some point in their lives. This means they are three times more likely to be bullied than their siblings without ASD.

The Kennedy Krieger study is the first nationwide survey to examine the impact of bullying on children with ASD. It showed the most frequent occurrences happen between 5th and 8th grades, and that public school kids with ASD are victimized nearly 50 percent more often than those at private or special education schools. As a parent of a 12-year-old daughter with autism, and as a special education advocate, I find these statistics disheartening, although not surprising.

Since we know that it’s happening, the question becomes how to protect our children from bullying at school? The answer is not with us, however, it is with the students.  For every bully out there, there are even more caring, compassionate children…and they’re the ones whose help we need to enlist.

Recently, at a friend’s house, I had an opportunity to observe my daughter interacting with a group of boys and girls around her age. When all of the children were laughing over something they found funny, I noticed that my daughter was not. Concerned, I was about to step in, when I saw one of the older boys reach out to her in away that stopped me in my tracks. He was making these funny, exaggerated facial expressions, trying to make her laugh. Then another boy exclaimed, “I’m so hungry I could eat a zebra!” as he picked up a stuffed zebra and began gnawing on it. I watched in amazement as it dawned on me: they were trying to teach her about sarcasm! She was learning that their strange behavior wasn’t intended to be mean or hurtful; the boys were just being silly. And understanding that made her feel included. The beauty of it was that there were no therapists orchestrating this lesson, just a group of kids demonstrating a fairly complicated social skill in an age-appropriate and effective way. While she doesn’t fully grasp the concept of sarcasm yet, she does have a better understanding than before, but the real gift we both received that night came from the boys’ desire to help my daughter be a part of their world in a way that made sense to her.

How Kids Can Help

With the Autism rates having risen to 1 in 88, chances are you know a child with Autism, your children know a child with Autism, and they probably have a student on the Autism spectrum in their class. In our efforts to combat bullying, let us add the many positive children, who outnumber school bullies by the score. Teach your kids from a young age how they can help by reaching out to someone who is different from them, and how to bridge social gaps by focusing on what they have in common, rather than what sets them apart. There are plenty of ways to connect with a student who has ASD. Show them how to play four square, share a silly joke, or give them something to add to whatever they’ve been collecting lately (my daughter is currently collecting milk cartons). Each child is unique, so different things will appeal to them, but it doesn’t take much effort to notice what piques someone’s interest.

If a bully can use their power of observation to hurt someone, then the many good-hearted kids out there can use those same tools in a healing way, by finding a common ground on which to stand up proudly for their classmates.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Harryman April 26, 2012 at 11:09 PM

My son (9) with ASD has already experienced bullying and teasing and it never has a good effect. Luckily, he seems to realize that THEY are the bad guys in that situation. Having other kids jump in and advocate/protect the kids who are otherwise unable to defend themselves is a great point and an avenue to strengthen with help from the schools and parents…tolerance and understanding are key.


Molly Matava April 29, 2012 at 6:27 PM

Yes, it’s not enough to try to stop the bullies (as if that were completely possible) we need to teach all kids how to stand up for themselves and how to be “upstanders” for others who are being bullied. My daughters school talks a lot about how to be a good friend/citizen to those who are being treated unfairly. I think it teaches responsibility too. Thanks for your comment!


kerri April 27, 2012 at 10:58 AM

Great Article. Good advice for ALL kids, including kids with ASD.


Michael Slone April 27, 2012 at 11:48 AM

Molly, thank you for sharing such important information, observations and words of advice! Keep up the great work!

Michael Slone
Board Certified Behavior Analyst
Licensed Educational Psychologist


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